Two Steps Back

This article first appeared in Jacobin magazine, summer issue of 2011.

a reply to Chris Maisano by Pam C. Nogales C.

“No coarser insult, no baser defamation, can be thrown against the workers than the remark, ‘Theoretical controversies are for the intellectuals’“

— Rosa Luxemburg, Reform or Revolution (1900) 

“Since there can be no talk of an independent ideology formulated by the working masses themselves in the process of their movement the only choice is — either bourgeois or socialist ideology… This does not mean, of course, that the workers have no part in creating such an ideology. They take part, however, not as workers, but as socialist theoreticians, as Proudhons and Weitlings; in other words, they take part only when they are able, and to the extent that they are able, more or less, to acquire the knowledge of their age and develop that knowledge.“

— Vladimir Lenin, What is to be Done? (1905)

Imagine the composition of the more than twelve hundred member audience, on a March evening in 1950, packed into New York’s Webster Hall to hear a public debate on the subject “Is Russia a socialist community?” The event, organized by the Eugene V. Debs Society, was chaired by the then thirty-three year old sociologist, C. Wright Mills, and pitted Earl Browder, deposed General Secretary of the Communist Party, still a staunch Stalinist, against the leader of the Trotskyist Workers’ Party, Max Shachtman. This event is a fascinating relic of American radical politics and an exemplary one, considering how little interest there is on the Left today in engaging in public debate. Present throughout the transcript are ideological concerns that would provide the backdrop for the sixties and seventies “New” Left. Individually, each presentation provides a rough sketch of a party line for the CP-USA and the Trotskyist Workers’ Party. But taken as a pair and in conversation they offer a composite image of how political practice of the day was rooted in questions regarding the nature of capitalism and the historical legacy of Marxism. Through contestation they probe what the Marxist Left at the time confronted with utmost difficulty. This inquiry into the theory and practice of leftist politics was a significant point of departure for Mills’ intellectual endeavors.

Not unlike the late 1950s, students today find most compelling in Marx what among the existing Left is fraught with a great deal of ideological confusion: the possibility of historical transformation. And though we can write and rewrite about the centrality of the eleventh thesis of Feuerbach until pages are worn to a pulp, in truth, we insist on the relevance of this line precisely because society has proven so recalcitrant to change—from the Left. “Crises” are no longer opportunities for political mobilization but just reaffirm how powerless the Left is, even in the face of economic collapse. Presently, the Right is much more effective at organizing in times of social discontent and holds the monopoly on the rhetoric of freedom—once the battle cry of the Left. We have reached an historical impasse of great political consequence.

In the face of this degeneration, how do we assess whether or not any self-purported Left either by “carrying on” with the political “struggle” or by returning to “the legacy of socialist thought,” is actually working towards social revolution? Writing amid the sound and fury of the Cold War, Mills was plagued by a sense that both the Right and the Left had become obstacles to transformative possibilities. As a critic of the Left, Mills leaves much to be admired. It is through this framework that his “Letter to the New Left” (1959) can speak to us today.

The Collapse of Historical Agency

The substance of the Letter is in Mills’ proclamation that both Stalinism and the end-of-ideology thesis were two sides of the same coin. The blind “optimism” of Stalinism had turned Marxist politics from a critical into an affirmative practice: “Pessimism is permitted,” Mills notes, “but only episodically and only within the context of the big optimism.” On the other side of the political spectrum, the end-of-ideology thesis was a “mechanical reaction — not a creative response — to the ideology of Stalinism.” Although at first glance this may have looked like a battle between the historical optimism of the Left (Stalinism) versus the historical pessimism of the Right (the end-of-ideology), both, he argued, were expressions of “the end of political reflection.” It is this recognition that drives him to underline the role of the intelligentsia. And here one may add a caveat, because Mills’s prescription, although originating from a nuanced assessment of his political moment, could lend itself to vulgar sociological empiricism: for Mills “the intelligentsia” could play a critical role insofar as it was able to push for political reflection and clarification, not because they were members of a particular social stratum. In other words, the intelligentsia was only potentially revolutionary; its role is “distinct and historically specific.” Because both Stalinism and the end-of-ideology perpetuated a political response to the present in which “the real questions are not even raised,” maybe the intelligentsia could provide a lens through which the Left could return to these pressing questions. Maybe.

A gathering at the Millses’ apartment in New York City in the late 1940s. From left to right: Dwight Macdonald, Leo Lowenthal, and Mills.

According to Mills, the Left had become an obstacle to itself by losing its grip on the relationship between ideology and political practice. It is this assessment that leads him to the formulation that the working class had ceased to be a transformative historical force. He wrote, “[The clinging mightily to the working class as the historical agency] is a historically specific idea that has been turned into an ahistorical and unspecific hope,” hence the label “labor metaphysics.” He characterized this problem as part of the legacy of “Victorian Marxism,” a perspective that held steadfast to the working class as the lever to revolution, long after the workers’ movement had ceased to work toward this goal. It’s important, however, that Mills recognizes this crisis as the result of the growing chasm between Marxism, as a radical political ideology, and the workers’ movement. For Mills, this crisis could only be addressed by making this rupture explicit as “the political problem of our time which we must turn into issue and trouble.”

In the Spring 2010 issue of the Jacobin, Chris Maisano’s response to the “Letter” warns that despite Mills’s assessment, the “Next Left” ought to keep in mind the “enduring centrality of the working class in the project of the Left.” Certainly, the organization of the working class is key to any politics that aims to overthrow capitalism. But presenting the problem in terms of support for the intelligentsia versus support for the proletariat winds up repeating the same problem that Mills is trying to address, the issue of an ahistorical prescription to practice. Ultimately, the subject of his essay is the Left and the problems plaguing the Left as he understood them and as they manifested in the late 1950s. Today, like in 1959, we can’t assume the radical character of the working class. Of course, this is not desirable, but it is part of what characterizes our historical moment, and we cannot neglect to address it without falling into a dogmatic response to the present.

Maisano couples his criticism with a report of labor struggles of the sixties and seventies to highlight the radically transformative potential of labor. He does this in order to disprove the thesis that the intelligentsia would replace the proletariat as the new “historical subject.” But Mills’ claim that the role of the intelligentsia is historically specific and adequate to its moment only insofar as it is able to grapple with and make palpable the problems plaguing the Left means that his proposition does not aim to substitute one “subject” for another, but is an attempt, rather, to formulate how the Left could, again, become an “agent,” a subject, in the making of history. For Mills, the intelligentsia may have a role to play in this regard, but only if it can push for political reflection and historical consciousness.

“Socialism or Barbarism”

It is unclear what exactly remains of the Left today: it has lost the ability to reflect on the historical conditions in which it operates, leaving its political practice adrift. The labor struggles of the ‘60s and ‘70s Maisano includes in his response are among the historical relics of the Left that do not in themselves guarantee the now long-overturned objective gains. They are, rather, part of the historical memory of political possibility that “weighs like a nightmare upon the brains of the living.” Certainly, this is also true for the deep history of the Left, and perhaps in ways more important to recognize. Historical gains by the Left have either been undone or transfigured beyond recognition. This is all the more reason why, for us today, the history of the Marxist Left remains obscure. In his own time, Mills presents his diagnosis, but arrives at more questions than answers.

“I cannot avoid the view that …the historic agency (in the advanced capitalist countries) has either collapsed or become most ambiguous: so far as structural change is concerned, these don’t seem to be at once available and effective as our agency any more. I know this is a debatable point among us, and among many others as well; I am by no means certain about it.”

It is with this set of concerns that Mills urged the New Left to “read Lenin again (be careful) — Rosa Luxemburg, too.”

But if the words of these Second International radicals contain the battle slogans of an era when revolutionary politics were actually on the table, how do they speak to us today? What do we make of this historical legacy?

Upon hearing the news of the fourth of August 1914, Luxemburg and Clara Zetkin, both in despair at the state of affairs, briefly considered suicide. Instead, in 1918, in order to rescue the historical mission of the German, and thus the international, Left, Luxemburg and Zetkin alongside Karl Liebknecht, Franz Mehring and others, founded the Spartacus League. This too is a relic of political possibility, once palpable and now far buried by proceeding decades of political degeneration. As terrifying as the thought may be, today, we live in the future that Luxemburg and Clara Zetkin imagined in horror. We do little justice to this history by treating it as a blueprint for political action. Perhaps old man Gus, the protagonist in Tony Kushner’s The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, put it best when he said that from the standpoint of the present, the history of the Left appears as if written in a language which no one speaks anymore. We may not know—certainly not any better than Mills—how the history of the Left speaks to us today. This is what constitutes the problem of historical consciousness that remains the task of our day.

Perhaps what is most tragic about the New Left is that while it recognized that leftist politics had reached a profound impasse, it yielded very little in terms of ideological clarification. In the American Left this problem often manifested as a vitriolic distaste for ideas and reflection on political action—a legacy that is all too present. At their worst, the proponents of these politics pushed blindly against barriers they did not seek to understand and in this way naturalized the old historical defeats of the early twentieth century.

This is the crisis in Marxism that we must make palpable. Mills’ “Letter” is a good reminder of why this is the political work that continues to be the central task of our age. 

A pdf of this article can be found here.

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